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Interview With Michael Lewis on His 'Travels in the New Third World'

'Boomerang' tours U.S., Europe's financial disasters

Q. What do you mean when you say that, for Germany, the euro is essentially another Holocaust memorial?

A. There's this feeling of wanting to atone for the sins of the past that's in the air. And their contribution to gluing Europe together in a peaceful union is a form of atonement.

Q. Will Germany's guilt over its 20th-century history prove decisive?

A. I don't know. It feels like a flip of a coin to me.

Q. If Germany decides not to help, what will happen to these countries?

A. They'll default.

Q. How will that affect the United States?

A. I don't know, and neither does anyone else.

Q. Similar financial problems are playing out in microcosm in American cities. Do you see any important differences?

A. One thing that's very similar is an erosion of faith in political leadership. The paralysis we're seeing in Washington and the Tea Party-engendered anger are both echoes of what's going on in Europe. The way America is structured, governments can push financial problems down to smaller and smaller units. And that is happening. The thing that's so different about American society is that we have this cultural difference, this idea of reinvention and renewal, and that's going to serve us very well. Because everybody's going to hit bottom; the question is how you behave when you hit bottom.

Q. You use Vallejo, Calif., as an example.

A. The city was bankrupted by the police and fire unions. The unions had a kind of Greek-like attitude towards the city. [More recently] the unions have realized that a good parasite doesn't kill the host, so there really has been honest reappraisal. There's a possibility of moral re-awakening, and in Vallejo you can see the beginnings of that.

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.

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